(links and images still need to prettify’d, but the text is set)
(|ARCHIVE|) The fourth installment in a series of six readings and interpretations from The Geography of Beer (https://www.amazon.com/Geography-Beer-Regions-Environment-Societies/dp/9400777868) , Part III - Societies. The abstract of the current paper, ‘Microbreweries, Place, and Identity in the United States’ by Steven M. Schnell (mailto:email@example.com?subject=Place%20%26%20Identity%20in%20the%20US%20%7C%20EndlessPint%20Write-up%20) and Joseph F. Reese, may be read on Springer (https://rd.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-007-7787-3_13) . https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/ Thomas Hawk
You’re a Customer
Drinking craft beer is more than just about having a flavorful product. While the better taste is crucial, an outcome of the higher quality and care, the bigger story is how craft beer ties into a neolocalism movement where consumers are turning away from the “smothering homogeneity” of mass produced goods and looking for something more authentic, something closer to home.
A sense of place and community is more of a challenge than ever due to today’s technology, mobility and globalization. In attempting to “establish, rebuild and cultivate local ties” many are turning to nearby options for where and how they spend their money and time. In line with the farmer’s markets is the growth in craft beers which not by coincidence tap into local pride and sense of place to play up their tie to the people and local community. Craft beer can serve as a tool for connection or a signal of preferences, aside from the fuller flavors. If it were just about the taste the big traditional breweries might have been able to win out (there is still time) more easily with their faux craft offerings, given their marketing expertise and deep pockets. However, despite the 1990’s shakeout and the more recent financial crash of the late 2000’s the strength of craft beer has only been reinforced by the commitment of local citizens and their willingness to pay more for something seen as wholesome, fresh, and locally sourced.
The methods and appeal of craft beer as a neolocalism badge are several, interrelated, and need not be taken cynically for us to be wary of their effect and potential misuse. In many respects the breweries need to distinguish themselves in as many ways as possible. If it is not quality beer it will not matter much what they do but once they achieve a certain level it behooves them to differentiate by laying claim to local identity. After all, most of the inputs that go into a beer are indistinguishable from one establishment to the other. “[B]arley and especially hops [are] grown in geographically concentrated areas” from which they get imported. Unless a brewery uses untreated local groundwater even the H2O can be easily replicated (e.g., Burtonization (http://us14.campaign-archive2.com/?u=2bcb7588e60b55d3de7f33b21&id=de7a126ed0) ). Of course the brewer’s experience and sophistication of the brewing system are differentiators that speak to quality but this is not the beginning of craft brewing, there are plenty of programs, suppliers, and associations to bring people up to speed nowadays.
Capital, labor, and ingredients aside, imagery and history are tapped into to better tell and sell the story of these beers. Among these irreplicable ingredients are the names used, “many times purposefully obscure”; the images of locally recognizable symbols, whether these be people, historical scenes, natural geography, or community symbols, they help further establish rootedness; the history of buildings or neighborhoods that breweries and brewpubs reside in, as a way of leveraging the past, whether beer related or otherwise.
The allegiance showed to location is meant to weave the breweries into the fabric of the community. Boo-hooing the common ingredients aside, inspired brewers have the opportunity to use local ingredients in both the beers and the food options of any brewpub menus. Related to local ingredients is staying true to seasonally available produce which impacts the kind of beers that are possible, leading to seasonal brewing, itself a breakaway from mechanical time and back to something more “natural”. Finally, breweries overtly show their commitment by being “supporters of local businesses, causes, and initiatives.”
Breweries are no different than other local and artisanal producers who are able to tap into the rich, interconnected web of meaning that is at the heart of sense of place. As a product, beer is an attractive and simple way to tap into a sense of community and place. In understanding the stories and deeper meanings on offer drinkers can feel like initiates, cloaking themselves with the status of insider. Nor is this, on the part of breweries, just a counter reaction to the automation of our globalized world but inline with a positive movement toward a broader political, social, and economic undertaking that stresses community in the face of overwhelming homogeneity, consciously cultivating local knowledge, business, economy, and connections.
Craft beer is not alone in offering a simple way to reach out for something more authentic. The options extend to all forms of food and drink, everything nowadays seeming to be a candidate for artisanal treatment. This goes for physical goods, artwork, and services. In each instance a bit more effort and deliberate attention is asked of us when spending time and money. Who made it, where, how long ago, what is their story, are all inputs into why a connoisseur might care when making a purchase. Craft beer is the counter to Big Beer, as are countless artisanal products to Kraft cheese and Wonder bread.
“… the bright, soulless rationality of these industrial icons no longer holds so much appeal. Many of us would rather have our bread unsliced, our cheese moldy, our coffee freshly roasted, and our beer dark and maybe just a little hazy. Irrationality can be a beautiful thing.”
- Randy Mosher, Tasting beer Arthur Sarnoff Despite the more wholesome characteristics and human connections we need to be careful to not delude ourselves. We remain in the role of consumer. The drive for a connection, which cannot be discounted, is moderated through a monetary arrangement. The desire and effort aimed at self expression ultimately falls victim to a transactional activity. We may be signaling our good taste, knowledge, and worldliness, our attention to local concerns, community, and sense of place but if this is done in the absence of actual involvement and conversation with others then we are just as isolated as ever, maybe more so. Whereas before we had no illusions about what mass produced goods, and beer specifically, provided, now we risk fooling ourselves, and we are always the easiest person to fool (Feynman (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Richard_Feynman) ), into believing we have something more substantial. Previously illusion, soon disillusion.
As tool creating and tool using primates we are naturally drawn to the novel, the generative, the creative. These attributes are only called out in name by mass production, whether it be of goods, services, or entertainment. Each of these offerings is beautifully packaged and wrapped with the charming bow of commoditization. This is a wonderful thing for most offerings and most people, most of the time. Clearly it is not enough all of the time, which is why in part we see, and experience ourselves, a drive for the smaller scale of things. Having been separated from the creation of a thing, most things, we basically cannot help ourselves from glomming onto a process or product, however idiosyncratic (because it is idiosyncratic, and the moreso the better) and wishing to learn more.
We are knowledge seeking, tool developing, reciprocal beings. The draw to learn, create and share is hardwired into us. Mass production leaves us flat, as do most products and work we have made available to ourselves. Like the artificially sweetened food we ingest where over time we forget the taste of real sweetness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nF9Lu9mBJf0&feature=youtu.be&t=1m13s) and the true delight in its contrast to a more natural diet, so with these diverse goods, services, media, and forms of employment. For the most part each are good to excellent approximations of the things they should/could be and through acclimation and comparisons among them we become expert at identifying their appeal to us and the difference among them, all the while losing sight that the difference between Nike and Adidas is no difference at all, given the lack of options available.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWFVQtg6eDU Time keeps on slipping… Along comes craft beer, awakening our senses (dulling them too), literally, each and every one inexorably tickling our minds and making us (re)consider what we have missed and how much more there is to discover. We are dazzled by the variety of flavors, colors, odors, history, camaraderie, the stories opened to us. We go to new bars, talk to new people, about different things (initially at least, many a humoring girlfriend has had to sit through the same conversation as if she were living her own Groundhog Day with beer speak); visit breweries, meet the people who make, package, and sell the stuff. A different way of doing and experiencing things is presented to us and it is quite predictable for so many to be caught up in the enthusiasm (beware the convert!) of both a new pursuit and one so delicious.
A new connection is created, but aside from the human connections there is nothing new here, just a revision. Many of the things we associate with this “new” kind of beer is not in the beer itself, they are the things we desire within/out, even when we do not recognize these desires for connection, conversation, and community. Craft beer is a way of doing this, approximately. It is especially a way of doing this for those creating it but if our involvement is restricted to that of a customer we have only substituted one stand-in for another. This disappointment is predictably greater since Big Beer was unlikely to have the same appeal and pull as this new stuff.
To avoid the latent discontents we must consider the desired feelings that arise from this industry and its products, including most especially the camaraderie, and seek to foster the elements that speak most strongly to us. Whether it be sense of place, community building, supporting small businesses, or simply choosing to create something. These drives need to be identified and nurtured, not drunk away in a pint (https://youtu.be/_IziexciKCA?t=27s) .